What can corporate leaders learn from the military?

I was recently asked to give a talk by a corporate leader on this question and spent a great deal of time thinking about it. Having spent over thirty years in the US Army and commanded at several levels to include leading soldiers in combat, I hoped that I would have something useful to share. Since retiring from the military I have had the opportunity to speak on leadership and conduct many leadership workshops, so the question intrigued me.

One thing that makes examining the military organizations interesting is that they are all the same. A mechanize infantry or artillery battalion is designed respectively to have the same number of soldiers, same equipment, and an equal number of junior leaders. Each of them is supposed to have specific training and experience that qualifies them for their position. Despite this fact, some units perform better than others even if they are in the same location and have the same mission. The difference is often leadership throughout the organization. President Dwight Eisenhower defined leadership as “the ability to decide what has to be done, and then get people to want to do it.” This power is often the ingredient that separates success from failure. So what can corporate leaders learn by looking at the military?

Leadership is “background music”

Author John W. Gardner once noted that the first and last task of any leader is to keep “hope alive.” I had the honor of working in the Pentagon while General Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a few years ago had the opportunity to have a private dinner with him. General Powell used to frequently say, “Optimism is a force multiplier.” The members of your organization may reach your level of optimism and enthusiasm but will only rarely exceed it. An effective leader knows that he or she must present a strong belief that the team will be successful and keep their doubts private.

Management by walking around….

Yogi Berra once said, “you can observe a lot by watching….” The film Captain Phillips, the true story of the captain of a supertanker ship, is a perfect example. He and his crew were taken hostage by pirates off the coast of Somalia and were eventually rescued by the US Navy. Phillips was a very successful ship captain and displayed a great deal of courage during this ordeal. When asked what he thought was the primary reason he had been successful for many years, he observed that the first thing he did every morning and the last thing he did every night was to walk the full length of the ship. He went into every compartment and spoke to every member of the crew.

Successful military commanders do the same thing. Clearly, when you are “managing by walking around” you are looking for potential problems. But the effective leader is also looking for successes and opportunities. Which young soldier is doing a great job and should be complimented? Which young officer needs a few minutes of mentoring about his or her future? Which NCO has a personal problem and needs someone to discuss it with?

Adaptability beats efficiency

I had the good fortune to get to know General Stan McChrystal, former US commander in Afghanistan while I was on active duty and am a greater admirer of his. Early in the war in Afghanistan, Stan said, “In 2004 we were successful in all our operations…but we were losing the war.”

Leadership is often about dealing with change, and I once worked for a general who used to say, “If you don’t like change…you are going to like irrelevance even less.” Leaders must lead and manage change in their organization. It is one of their fundamental responsibilities. But they must also establish a climate of initiative and innovation that allow their organization not only to succeed but also to keep succeeding. Military history is replete with defeats that were due to a failure to innovate and change.

In 1903 Henry Ford attempted to get a loan from a Michigan bank to establish his car company. The banker rejected his application and told him, “The horse is here to stay… the motor car is a fad.” Leadership is the ability to know when to accept change, and when to ignore the banker.